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Renaissance Underway in Rural Parts of the World

The phrase “middle of nowhere” is disappearing as technology helps cities like Mitchell, S.D., stay connected and improve citizens' quality of life.

For me, the best part of the Intelligent Community movement is seeing the patterns of the new energized community emerging. To do it, you have to learn to connect dots. And, as Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting the dots.”

The dots were linked again for me this past weekend when I visited the Oceania galleries in Mitchell, S.D., and New York’s Metropolitan Museum. One of the happiest days of my life was nearly 35 years ago when I first became a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It made me feel as if I had totally joined the city of New York. All of it. I now had the privilege of walking into that majestic building on Fifth Avenue and roaming the world as I pleased, as my heart and mind dictated. I could be curious and learn endlessly (my idea of heaven). It was a thrill and, looking back, it was the deliverance of the “quality of life” that Manhattan had always promised. This feeling has continued to make all the difference about whether I live here or somewhere else.

As I strolled those galleries for the millionth time, I flashed back to a moment last Tuesday: Shortly after Mitchell Mayor Ken Tracy gave me the keys to the city, I officially recognized Mitchell’s selection as one of this year's Top 7 cities and invited them to Toronto, Canada, in June to be the “stars” of our summit.

My recognition of Mitchell took place in a modest room where the council gathers to not only plot the continued rise of the city, a place with a 2.8 percent unemployment rate, but also listen to serious local issues that relate to their sidewalks, policing and tourist industry. With a major conflict pending over a measure that asks property owners to pay for sidewalk installations, I suspect I was a breath of fresh air that evening – at least for the council. 

I also reinforced something that nearly every city champion explained to me as essential for Mitchell’s future: that quality of life is capital. It will be the formula that allows the city to keep its amazing balance between the gifts nature has provided and its economic destiny. In Mitchell, local meets global. I know this because they issue pens that read, “Bison and broadband.”

And not only that, but the city of 15,285 has three broadband providers, while in places far larger, officials still spat about whether broadband is necessary and who is going to pay for it. In Mitchell, however, broadband is in -- but it is merely a building block for a structure called “quality of life.” This is the BIG BUILD. On these Great Plains of America, the drive to use broadband and Intelligent Community ideas to construct a great place to live and thrive is on.

Like Taichung, Taiwan, with its Calligraphy Greenway, and the province of New Brunswick, Canada, whose small population of 750,000 produced three Top 7 communities a few years ago, Mitchell has settled upon quality of life as the biggest challenge in restoring a population that declined by 30 percent in the post-industrial era. The notion has taken root. Like the corn in the fields of Davison County (planted by high-tech tractors), ideas around quality of life have many variations. But the most compelling is driven by the evidence that many people who left the area want to return to Mitchell to both enjoy nature and be plugged into a global economy. People are coming home. I met several, and they were all proud to be back.

Mitchell is a dynamic community and is capable of going all the way in our awards program, not because it is a monolithic economic powerhouse as were Taichung or Singapore in 2013 and 1999. Nor is it the most innovative place on earth, as Eindhoven and Waterloo could lay claim to having been winners in 2011 and 2007.

Unlike New York City (Intelligent Community of the Year, 2001), it is filled with modest people who get a little uncomfortable promoting themselves as “world class,” and hardly believe they are all of that. But they are. They reinforce the claim that the “middle of nowhere” is no more; that a renaissance is underway in the rural parts of the world. They were smart enough to push broadband through and to make people like it.

Like a tractor embedded with smart technology that is boosting crop yields by numbers once thought unimaginable, the city has quietly, surely and in the steadfast way of its Norwegian heritage, become a “high-tech city” without technology or frenzied Twitter freaks claiming their inflated presence. It meanders on, proud of the remarkable natural art on the outside of its famous Corn Place and the productivity and successful job placement of its technical schools. What they are most proud of, I believe, is the fact that its kids are starting to turn their sights back home, where the Bison roam and the broadband is fast.

This blog was originally published by the Intelligent Community Forum; it has been edited for style and clarity.